While Donald Trump insists that California’s near-epochal drought is but a myth, it ain’t necessarily so.
Indeed, the state is tinder dry.
From NASA’s Earth Observatory:
More form NASA:
A wildfire burning northeast of Bakersfield, California, is the state’s largest so far in 2016, according to news reports. It has also been called the season’s a most destructive fire. As of June 27, the Erskine fire had scorched 18,368 hectares (45,388 acres), destroyed at least 250 structures, and was responsible for at least two deaths.
The top image shows the region at 3:34 a.m. Pacific Time on June 26, 2016. It was acquired with the day-night band (DNB) of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite. The DNB can detect relatively dim signals such as city lights and reflected moonlight. In this case it also shows the glow of wildfire.
The second image shows the fire later that same day. This natural-color image was acquired with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Red outlines indicate hot spots where MODIS detected warm surface temperatures associated with fires. Winds carried smoke from the fire northward.
The fire first ignited on June 23 due to a yet-unknown cause. On the date these images were acquired, the fire had burned 17,588 hectares (43,460 acres). As of June 27, the fire was 40 percent contained and continued to pose a threat to structures.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, above normal fire potential is expected to expand into the Sierras and central coast region of California as summer progresses. According to the outlook: “The highest potential may be over the Sierra Foothills where a severe, multiyear drought has exacted a toll on the vegetation of the area.”
And there will be more to come, thanks to a massive die-off of California’s pine, fir, and cedar forests.
California’s climate has always been hospitable to fire – it comes with the territory. But add five years of drought, a bark beetle blight killing trees by the millions and rising temperatures, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
“We are seeing the compounded effects of climate change that includes five consecutive years of drought and rising mean temperatures across the West – last year was the hottest year on record,” said Janet Upton, deputy director of communications at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “All that is trending to a more flammable California.”
Last week, the U.S. Forest Service reported that 26 million trees had died in six counties in the southern Sierra Nevada since October. Adding in an estimated 40 million dead trees counted since October 2010, it brings the statewide tree mortality to at least 66 million in less than six years.
High rates of tree mortality are being driven by bark beetles in combination with the state’s drought. Like fire, bark beetles are a natural part of the state’s ecology and a way for nature to weed out the weak and keep forests healthy. But when the trees suffer from drought, they no longer have their natural defense mechanism to fight off bark beetles. “Trees draw up moisture and push the beetle out,” said Upton. “With the drought, they couldn’t draw the moisture needed to do that.” And that has led to a bark beetle explosion – to epidemic levels.
Hardest hit so far has been the southern Sierra. “We identified six high-hazard counties and now we’ve added four more,” said Upton. The bark beetle blight is marching to the north.